The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

The Pilgrim's Progress from This World, To That Which Is toCome
The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, To That Which Is to Come by John Bunyan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s taken me a while, but I have finished the first book on my list of 88+ Classics to read within five years. I’ll ignore for the moment the fact that I need to really bump up my pace if I’m going to meet my goal, and instead just celebrate being done with this one particular book.

So, hooray! I’m done with The Pilgrim’s Progress!

The Pilgrim’s Progress is made up of two parts: Part I follows Christian as he travels through an allegorical landscape to the equally allegorical Celestial City, and Part II follows his wife, Christiana, and their sons as they make their allegorical trek after Christian.

The edition I have—the Penguin Classics paperback—has an introduction and notes by Roger Sharrock. I didn’t read Sharrock’s introduction, but his notes helped give some historical context and some explanation for some of the symbols, which helped clear some of the haze of confusion in which I sometimes found myself.

In Part I we hear a lot of conversion stories. First we hear Christian’s own story and then we hear the stories of each person Christian meets—and he meets a lot of people. After each person shares his story, we get to hear Christian and his walking buddy (Faithful (until his end in Vanity Fair), and then Hopeful) discussing the flaws in that person’s viewpoint. For someone so fearful and doubting at the beginning of the tale, Christian ends up pretty judgmental of others’ stories and motivations by the end. He criticizes those who are attracted by the fervor of the pilgrims, as well as those who take too intellectual an approach toward religion.

“For they are these talkative fools,” Christian says, “whose religion is only in word, and are debauched and vain in their conversation, that being so much admitted into the fellowship of the godly do stumble the world, blemish Christianity, and grieve the sincere.”

In Part I, the path to the Celestial City is a very difficult one, and very few people are likely to measure up and to make it past all of the dangers to their final reward. Christian’s pilgrimage is one he takes largely on his own, and each test he encounters is one that challenges his personal faith.

There is a big focus in this section on the importance of turning away from one’s family and friends when they don’t support one’s pilgrimage. Christian turns away from his family, leaving them behind to what he believes will be certain death, and then the first of his two main traveling companions does the same. As Faithful explains when another pilgrim questions him about his lineage, “although all these that he named might claim kindred of me, and that rightly (for indeed they were my relations, according to the flesh), yet since I became a pilgrim they have disowned me, and I also have rejected them.”

Part II is a lot less personal, and it seems much easier to be a successful pilgrim. In part, this is explained by the fact that Christian worked so hard to clear so many dangers out of the way for those who came after him. Dangers that nearly cost Christian his life, or at least his faith, his wife and sons pass through with very little hardship. The Slough of Despond? No problem. The Valley of Humiliation? Hardly even mentioned. The Enchanted Ground and the Arbors so tempting to weary travelers but so deadly to those who succumb to their weariness and rest a while? Christiana and her companions pass by without a second glance. What hardships they do face, their guide Great-heart sweeps aside for good, presumably clearing the way for even more pilgrims to reach the Promised Land.

While there are challenges to be met along the way in Part II, they are primarily challenges based on the pilgrim’s own inherent weakness as women and children. Bunyan mentions this weakness over and over, and it’s because of this weakness that Christiana and her party get special guidance to the City from the brave Great-heart. Not only does Great-heart have intimate knowledge of the way ahead, any danger they encounter he dispatches with fierce efficiency. After he’s vanquished several foes, he and the other men who’ve joined the pilgrims actually seek out giants to slay. Great-heart is so successful and so easily so, I found myself wondering why he didn’t help Christian and so many other pilgrims before. Maybe it’s some statement about how the challenges one meets along the road match the challenges one holds in one’s individual soul. Or something like that.

Christiana initially takes along her children and her friend, Mercy, whose decision to become a pilgrim is inspired by Christiana’s faith. They travel in the wake of Christiana’s husband’s success, celebrated everywhere they go as the family of Christian. As they travel the King’s Highway, they pick up more and more followers. While in Part I Christian seemed reluctant to take on imperfect travel companions, Christiana’s crew makes concessions to those who are week in body, mind, or spirit to help them along. I don’t quite get why Christian’s journey was so solitary while his wife’s is a community event.

Not knowing the details of the ebb and flow of religious persecution in England during the mid- to late-17th century—and not really caring to take time out to research it at this point—it’s not clear to me how many of the differences between Part I and Part II are a reflection of the change in acceptance of Puritans between the writing of Part I and the writing of Part II, and how much they are simply a reflection of the evolution of Bunyan’s personal faith. It’s possible the differences could also be influenced by the commercial success of Part I. Perhaps after that success, Bunyan’s goals were different for the second part. I’m sure someone’s written about this, and I could probably read for years about it, if I chose to. Which I don’t.

There were a fair number of events in both parts of the book that confused me (not the least of which is the recommendation that all of the children born to Christiana’s sons’ wives along the way be left to be raised by a man they meet along the way), but I also found some very poignant language and imagery. Great-heart especially has some gems, like when he’s describing the difficulties of Mr Fearing, who reached the Celestial City but was so fearful the whole way that he needed special help and encouragement practically to the very end. “He had, I think, a Slough of Despond in his mind, a slough that he carried everywhere with him, or else he could never have been as he was.”

This opened up for me a new possible interpretation of “the fear of God.” I’d always thought of this as just the fear of God’s punishment, but I wonder if it could also refer to a fear of God’s grace, or a fear of being found unworthy of such grace. Or maybe it’s a fear of leaving behind the thoughts and behaviors that are familiar but that hold us back from being more than what we are in this moment.

At any rate, I’m glad that I read the book. I don’t know that I have a great understanding of Puritan theology or even a better understanding of it than I had before I started, but it was fairly pleasant to read. At the same time, I am very glad that I’m done with it. I was getting a little tired of pilgrimages by the end of Part II. And I really need to go back and read Little Women again; I can’t quite imagine how the March girls go about “playing pilgrims” based on this book.

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